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June 9, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:22am

Reader comments prompted attorney general warning to newspaper in false rape accusations case

By Charlotte Tobitt

Reader comments on a UK newspaper website have prompted the Attorney General to issue a contempt of court warning.

Attorney General Suella Braverman (pictured) sent the letter after receiving reports of potentially prejudicial comments on the website of The Mail in Barrow, Cumbria.

The comments related to an ongoing court case in which a 19-year-old woman has been charged with perverting the course of justice over false allegations of rape.

It is the same case which has seen torrents of abuse and threats sent to Mail chief reporter Amy Fenton, who was subsequently put under police protection and forced to flee her home with her five-year-old daughter.

A spokesperson for Newsquest, which owns The Mail, told Press Gazette the comments were removed in line with company policy as soon as staff were alerted to them– before the letter from the Attorney General had arrived.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office said: “I can confirm that this matter has been referred to our office.

“The Law Officers will review these allegations and decide whether to institute contempt proceedings against The Mail. We cannot comment on the nature of any referrals.”

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Media law expert David Banks suggested The Mail has done everything right, telling Press Gazette: “As long as the paper removes them when they get a complaint they have no legal liability, as long as they didn’t pre-moderate them.”

Media law bible McNae’s warns media organisations to be “wary” of allowing readers to post comments online about an active criminal case.

Best practice includes not providing the function for user comments under reports of arrest or an ongoing jury trial. If comments are posted elsewhere on a news website, McNae’s suggests section 19 of the Electronic Commerce Regulations 2002 may protect them.

This is the law which provides internet service providers with impunity for prosecution over content which they have provided a platform for.

Picture: UK Parliament

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